NHLPA's Walsh impressed by players' engagement
Marty Walsh has shaken a lot of hands through the years.
As a union leader, as the mayor of Boston, and as U.S. President Joe Biden's first labour secretary.
Nine months into his new gig, Walsh is doing more of the same.
The NHL Players' Association executive director has been making the rounds across the league in the early part of the schedule to get to know — and better understand — his membership.
"For a lot of a lot of players it's their first time meeting me," Walsh said during a recent media availability in Toronto. "Good conversation and good dialogue. Lots of talking about business growth and development. They're asking a lot of questions.
"The response has been really strong."
Walsh replaced outgoing NHLPA boss Don Fehr in February following two years in the Biden administration. The union was looking for a new voice as the league continues to emerge from financial hardships brought on by COVID-19 — and with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in September 2026.
"A powerful presence," Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, his team's representative on the NHLPA's executive board, said before the season. "You want to listen to him talk. He's got a good vision for where he wants the PA to go.
"A breath of fresh air to try and get this thing continually moving in the right direction."
"A natural born leader," Jones said. "Assertive and seems like he knows what he's talking about. He's going to be good for us."
Walsh also has former NHL defenceman Ron Hainsey as his assistant to help guide him through some of the sport's nuances.
"Smart guy ... he's a great asset," Walsh said. "I have a strong labour background and a strong legal background, and understand how to grow business. He understands the game of hockey. It feels like we've known each other for 20 years.
"He's a strong advocate for the players."
The core issues between owners and players always boil down to money.
The NHLPA's membership has seen a chunk of salaries go to the league via escrow in order to maintain a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenues. The percentage of money that didn't end up in players' pockets jumped significantly over the last few years because of debt accumulated during the pandemic-ravaged 2019-20 campaign.
After years of a flat salary cap, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last month the league projects the number to rise from US$83.5 million this season to somewhere in the neighbourhood of $90 million in 2024-25.
"We need to grow the game," Wilson said. "Market players, market the game, show why hockey is one of the best sports in the world. I think (Walsh) understands that.
"Other sports are growing and they're growing fast, and the NHL needs to keep up. That's the starting point."
Walsh has been impressed with the engagement in his conversations around the league — and not just from player reps like Wilson and Jones.
"Maybe I came in with a preconceived notion that a couple players worry about business and most players don't," Walsh said. "That's not true. A lot of players are concerned about the business.
"This is their job. This their profession."
He added the membership is realizing that business is about more than just the on-ice product in a sport where athletes have historically kept things close to the vest in the public eye.
"The more engagement we have from the players on the business side of it, the better it is for the game," Walsh said. "It's more eyes watching. The best ambassadors to grow the game of hockey are the players. It's not the ownership, it's not me, it's not Gary. It's the players.
"Having them understand the importance of their power — what they could do to grow this game — is really important."
The league and players continue to talk about Olympic participation in 2026.
"We've had good conversations and are fine-tuning a couple of points," Walsh said. "I'm hopeful. Players are very eager to play."
Hockey hasn't seen a best-on-best tournament since 2014. The NHL skipped the Games in 2018 and pulled the plug in 2022 because of COVID-19 concerns.
The league and union want to eventually get the World Cup back up and running on a regular schedule, and are working toward a smaller international showcase event in 2025.
"I grew up a hockey fan," Walsh said. "Best-on-best tournaments, they didn't happen that often, but when they did they were amazing ... memories that you talk about.
"That'll help hockey."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton's NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.